What will happen if a majority of dioceses do not vote to return the Covenant to the General Synod? Will the Church of England have rejected the Covenant or not?
A defeat of the Covenant in diocesan synods would appear to prevent the General Synod from considering the Covenant before it ends its current incarnation in July 2015. If this happens, however, it would appear that the Church of England will have failed to adopt the Covenant. But this is not the same as refusing to adopt it.
Were the Covenant a carefully drawn legal document (instead of a legal-sounding document drawn up largely by politically oriented clergy, some of whom were very angry), the text would specify the exact form by which adoption must be declared to the Communion, and there would be a deadline for adoption. Failure to declare adoption before the deadline would be construed as rejection.
Not only has the Covenant not been subject to reasonable, unambiguous adoption procedures, but also it authorizes churches to act in certain circumstances as if it had adopted the pact.
One might imagine the Church of England attempting and failing to adopt the Covenant every five years. There could be no end to it. On the other hand, Southeast Asia “acceded” to the Covenant but added a “Preamble to the Letter of Accession” that, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, asserts that the words of the Covenant mean only what that province says they mean. Somewhat less arrogantly, Ireland “subscribed” to the Covenant, seemingly circumscribing its effect on the Irish church. How the actions of Southeast Asia or Ireland differ from that of, say, Mexico, which simply let its “yes” be “yes,” is anyone’s guess.
But let me return to the Church of England for a moment. According to §4.2.8 of the Covenant text,
Participation in the decision making of the Standing Committee or of the Instruments of Communion in respect to section 4.2 [The Maintenance of the Covenant and Dispute Resolution] shall be limited to those members of the Instruments of Communion who are representatives of those churches who have adopted the Covenant, or who are still in the process of adoption.“Questions” about the actions of a church can only be raised with respect to a church that has adopted the Covenant (§4.2.3). If the Church of England has not definitively rejected the Covenant, even though its dioceses have essentially voted down adoption of it, would not the church get the best of both worlds? It would have no obligations to satisfy any other churches with its behavior, yet it could argue that it is “still in the process of adoption,” since adoption had not actually been precluded. Therefore, representatives of the Church of England, including, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury, could serve as they always have. This peculiar state of affairs could go on indefinitely.
Churches could object that failure to approve is, in fact, rejection, and assert that the Church of England was no longer “still in the process of adoption.” Who would adjudicate such a claim? According to §4.2.2, the Standing Committee “shall monitor the functioning of the Covenant in the life of the Anglican Communion on behalf of the Instruments.” Would the Standing Committee, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose authority hung in the balance, decide the matter? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury recuse himself? Would the Church of England find itself in the second tier of the Anglican Communion. God only knows!
All this just goes to show what an incompetently drawn document the Covenant is. Some have feared that the Covenant could have the Communion arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Verily, I say unto you, it could have us arguing about who is allowed to count the dancing angels and what methods of enumeration may be used.
What does all this mean for The Episcopal Church. It means, I think, that we should try to drive a stake through the heart of this misbegotten Covenant. We should pass a resolution at the 2012 General Convention stating that (1) we are, and expect to continue to be, a member of the Anglican Communion, but that (2) we decline to adopt the Anglican Covenant. We should not simply vote down a resolution to adopt the Covenant.